Dallas Doctor On Surviving Mount Everest: ‘I’d Do It Again In A Heartbeat’
The film “Everest” recounts a 1996 attempt to scale the world’s tallest peak. Eight mountain climbers died. Beck Weathers survived, but the doctor from Dallas lost one hand, the fingers in another, and he endured at least ten surgeries.
He wrote about how he survived in the book “Left for Dead: My Journey From Everest.” Weathers told KERA’s Rick Holter that seeing his story play out on the big screen was a much different experience.
Interview Highlights: Beck Weathers…
…On seeing the film for the first time:
“Parts of it are easy to digest. I know the people, I know the story, which [the film] actually follows the story and it’s very accurate. Other parts just run over you with a wave of emotion and there are parts that I find very difficult to see. Moments where my wife, Peach, has to tell our two children that I’m dead and I’m not coming back anymore. That’s very hard.”
…On dealing with depression before and after Everest:
“When I got back from Everest, the real difficulty occurs. I had known just how terribly depressed I’d been for no reason at all. Now I’ve got a heck of a reason, and I was fairly frightened that I would seize upon that, so I made a fairly unrealistic decision that I would at least, for the next year, I’d be Little Mary Sunshine. I’d find every day something to be optimistic about and find something in every day that I could enjoy that I could not have enjoyed had I been killed on the mountain. By taking it one day at a time, I realized I wasn’t going to have to wrestle that black dog anymore.”
…On his desire to climb mountains again:
“I work as a professional speaker, and one of the reasons I do it is because I need to hear this story fairly frequently to remind myself. Otherwise, you kind of get there thinking, ‘well, that could be kind of fun to do’ and so [telling the story] kind of stomps that out right in the bud.”
…On life after Everest:
“I’ve never had nightmares of any sort related to Everest. I don’t know why, but no sense of post-traumatic stress or anything else. I just have accepted my reality and I think [when you] realize you can’t go through the ‘why me, could’ve, should’ve, would’ve,’ all the rest of that kind of second guessing doesn’t do anything except make you unhappy and bitter.
The remarkable thing about the last 20 years is that those have been the best years of my life. I gave up some body parts, but I got back my marriage, I got back my relationship with my kids, I’ve got a new grandbaby…all in all, if I had to do it again, every pain, every misery, every bit of suffering that comes from it, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
An excerpt from the book, "Left for Dead" by Beck Weathers:
On the evening of May 10, 1996, a killer blizzard exploded around the upper reaches of Mount Everest, trapping me and dozens of other climbers high in the Death Zone of the Earth’s tallest mountain.
The storm began as a low, distant growl, then rapidly formed into a howling white fog laced with ice pellets. It hurtled up Mount Everest to engulf us in minutes. We couldn’t see as far as our feet. A person standing next to you just vanished in the roaring whiteout. Wind speeds that night would exceed seventy knots. The ambient temperature fell to sixty below zero.
The blizzard pounced on my group of climbers just as we’d gingerly descended a sheer pitch known as the Triangle above Camp Four, or High Camp, on Everest’s South Col, a desolate saddle of rock and ice about three thousand feet below the mountain’s 29,035-foot summit.
Eighteen hours earlier, we had set out from the South Col for the summit, heartened as we trudged along by a serene and cloudless night sky that beckoned us ever upward until dawn, when it gave way to a spectacular sunrise over the roof of the world.
Then confusion and calamity struck.
Of the eight clients and three guides in my group, five of us, including myself, never made it to the top. Of the six who summited, four were later
killed in the storm. They included our thirty-five-year-old expedition leader, Rob Hall, a gentle and humorous New Zealander of mythic mountaineering prowess. Before he froze to death in a snow hole near the top of Everest, Rob
would radio a heartbreaking farewell to his pregnant wife, Jan Arnold, at their
home in Christchurch. Another sad fatality was diminutive Yasuko Namba, forty-seven, whose final human contact was with me, the two of us huddled together through that awful night, lost and freezing in the blizzard on the South Col, just a quarter mile from the warmth and safety of camp.
Four other climbers also perished in the storm, making May 10, 1996, the deadliest day on Everest in the seventy-five years since the intrepid British schoolmaster, George Leigh Mallory, first attempted to climb the mountain.
May 10 began auspiciously for me. I was battered and blowing from the enormous effort to get that far, but I was also as strong and clearheaded as any forty-nine-year-old amateur mountaineer can expect to be under the severe physical and mental stresses at high altitude. I already had climbed eight other major mountains around the world, and I had worked like an animal to get to this point, hell-bent on testing myself against the ultimate challenge.
I was aware that fewer than half the expeditions to climb Everest ever put a single member—client or guide—on the summit. But I wanted to join an even more select circle, the fifty or so people who had completed the so-called Seven Summits Quest, scaling the highest peaks on all seven continents. If I summited Everest, I would have only one more mountain to go.
I also knew that approximately 150 people had lost their lives on the mountain, most of them in avalanches. Everest has swallowed up several dozen of these victims, entombing them in its snowfields and glaciers. As if to underscore its vast indifference to the whole mountain-climbing enterprise, Everest mocks its dead. The glaciers, slowly grinding rivers of ice, carry climbers’ shattered corpses downward like so much detritus, to be deposited in pieces, decades later, far below.
Common as sudden, dramatic death is among mountain climbers, no one actually expects to be killed at high altitude. I certainly didn’t, nor did I ever give much thought to whether a middle-aged husband and father of two ought to be risking his neck in that way. I positively loved mountain climbing: the camaraderie, the adventure and danger, and—to a fault—the ego boost it gave me.
I fell into climbing, so to speak, a willy-nilly response to a crushing bout of depression that began in my mid-thirties. The disorder reduced my chronic low self-regard to a bottomless pit of despair and misery. I recoiled from myself and my life, and came very close to suicide.
Then, salvation. On a family vacation in Colorado I discovered the rigors and rewards of mountain climbing, and gradually came to see the sport as my avenue of escape. I found that a punishing workout regimen held back the darkness for hours each day. Blessed surcease. I also gained hard muscle and vastly improved my endurance, two novel sources of pride.
Once in the mountains (the more barren and remote, the better), I could fix my mind, undistracted, on climbing, convincing myself in the process that conquering world-famous mountains was testimony to my grit and manly character. I drank in the moments of genuine pleasure, satisfaction and bonhomie out in the wilds with my fellow climbers.
But the cure eventually began to kill me. The black dog slunk away at last, yet I persisted in training and climbing and training and climbing. High- altitude mountaineering, and the recognition it brought me, became my hollow obsession. When my wife, Peach, warned that this cold passion of mine was destroying the center of my life, and that I was systematically betraying the love and loyalty of my family, I listened but did not hear her.
The pathology deepened. Increasingly self-absorbed, I convinced myself that I was adequately expressing my love for my wife, daughter and son by liberally seeing to their material needs, even as I emotionally abandoned them. I’m eternally grateful that they did not, in turn, abandon me, although with the mountain of insurance I’d taken out against the possibility of an accident, I should have hired a food taster.
In fact, with each of my extended forays into the wild, it became clearer, at least to Peach’s unquiet mind, that I probably was going to get myself killed, the recurrent subtext of my life. In the end, that’s what it took to break the spell. On May 10, 1996, the mountain began gathering me to herself, and I slowly succumbed. The drift into unconsciousness was not unpleasant as I sank into a profound coma on the South Col, where my fellow climbers eventually would leave me for dead.
Peach received the news by telephone at 7:30 A.M. at our home in Dallas. Then, a miracle occurred at 26,000 feet. I opened my eyes.
My wife was hardly finished with the harrowing task of telling our children their father was not coming home when a second call came through, informing her that I wasn’t quite as dead as I had seemed.
Somehow I regained consciousness out on the South Col—I don’t understand how—and was jolted to my senses, as well as to my feet, by a vision powerful enough to rewire my mind. I am neither churchly nor a particularly spiritual person, but I can tell you that some force within me rejected death at the last moment and then guided me, blind and stumbling— quite literally a dead man walking—into camp and the shaky start of my return to life.
From the book LEFT FOR DEAD by Beck Weathers with Stephen G. Michaud.
Copyright © 2000 by S. Beck Weathers. Reprinted by arrangement with Bantam, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.